Last Updated on February 27, 2021 by Jim Ferri
Maine cruises are a wonderful way to see this special part of New England…
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
By Dave G. Houser
As a one-time New Englander, I hold fond memories of driving along the cove-indented, granite-girded coast of Maine, where waves crash ashore beneath picture-perfect lighthouses and quaint little towns embrace harbors chock full of schooners, yachts and lobster boats.
While few pleasures can match it for a summer’s drive, I recently experienced the marvels of the mid-Maine coast from an entirely different perspective during a seven-day voyage onboard American Cruise Lines’ sleek little Independence, a 226-foot, 104 passenger mini-cruiser introduced into service in Maine in 2010.
Here’s how the Maine cruise unfolded – conveniently departing from and returning to Portland, and taking in Bar Harbor, Castine, Belfast, Camden, Rockland, Boothbay Harbor and Bath.
Joined for the voyage by a friend, the two of us opted for a morning visit to Portland, choosing one of Portland Discovery Tours’ excursions to see as much of the city as we could.
Hopping on an open-air trolley, we made a sightseeing jaunt through the revitalized Old Port district, and then on to glimpse some of Portland’s other attractions, including poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home, the 1850s Victoria Mansion and Portland Museum of Art – Maine’s oldest (1852) and largest art museum.
Our tour concluded with a visit to Portland Head Light. This old beauty, commissioned by George Washington in 1791, stands as one of the most iconic of the many lighthouses that dot the Maine Coast.
Our Maine Cruise Sets Sail for Bar Harbor & Acadia National Park
After sailing overnight to Bar Harbor, a wonderful stop on Maine cruises – that’s “Bah Haba” in the local dialect – we joined an optional 2 ½-hour bus tour along the 27-mile loop road around Acadia National Park.
Acadia was the first national park east of the Mississippi, established in 1919, and it’s the only national park in the northeastern United States. Visitors are treated to a majestic panorama of land and sea, where waves wash over huge outcroppings of granite flanked by dense stands of virgin forest.
We stopped for photos at Thunder Hole, a natural inlet in the rocky shore where waves spout as high as 40 feet – and atop Cadillac Mountain – the eastern seaboard’s tallest peak at 1,530 feet. Great views from there, where the rising sun first shines on American soil.
Following the tour, we had free time to wander about Bar Harbor, a town that still smacks of its turn-of-the-century heyday as one of the country’s most exclusive summer retreats.
Castine and Belfast – Quite Different
Day two on our Maine cruise found us calling on a pair of Penobscot Bay towns, Castine and Belfast. A serene little New England village, with streets shaded by leafy elms and bordered by elegant old buildings, Castine appears as a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting.
Joining an optional two-hour guided walking tour, we had a look at the town, stopping first at the Maine Maritime Academy, a preeminent naval college with an enrollment of almost a thousand students that boasts a fleet of more than 70 training vessels.
Main Street presents such architectural delights as the turreted Victorian-style Pentagoet Inn, noted for its gracious hospitality, the 1833 post office (oldest in continuous service in the U.S.), towering 18th century Trinitarian Congregational Parish and the 1859 Abbott School – now restored as the Castine Historical Society Museum. Our favorite exhibit was its 24-foot-long Bicentennial Quilt, assembled by local women for the town’s 200th anniversary in 1996.
An afternoon visit to Belfast revealed a port town that, like Castine, features some notable architecture, with many fine examples of Federal, Greek revival, Italianate, and Victorian styles, including 47 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a popular city to visit on Maine cruises.
While fascinated by Belfast’s beautiful buildings, we noticed something else going on there. The place seemed to us really trendy – and we were right. Budget Travel magazine named it one of the top ten coolest towns in the U.S., and USA Today cited it as one of America’s most culturally cool towns.
Rambling about on another of ACL’s optional walking tours, we felt the vibes – radiating from funky cafes, zany boutiques, offbeat bookstores and galleries, a food co-op, a “green store,” and various community theaters. No doubt, Belfast is a hotbed of art, music, dance, poetry, festivals and cultural events
Camden – A Mariner’s Paradise Experienced on a Cruise of Maine
Camden is yet another quintessentially pretty New England burg with a busy harbor—home to a large fleet of tall-masted windjammers that ply Penobscot Bay on day trips and extended sailings.
Many Independence passengers joined an optional narrated bus tour to Camden Hills State Park where Mt. Battie affords a bird’s eye view of Camden Harbor and the sweeping vista of Penobscot Bay’s scattering of islands. Melinda and I decided instead on a complimentary walking tour led by ACL’s guest lecturer Lauri DeGaris.
Our stroll led through peaceful Camden Harbor Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, best known for plotting New York City’s Central Park. Crossing the Megunticook River on a bridge bedecked with flowers, we wandered along the main drag perusing boutiques and galleries and then settled down a bench on the wharf. Here, we watched an engaging nautical parade of kayaks, dinghies, lobster boats, windjammers and yachts of every size. This place is indeed a mariner’s paradise.
Rockland – Lobster Anyone?
Rockland — always popular on Maine cruises — presented a day filled with activities and tour options. A number of passengers joined two-hour long hands-on tours onboard lobsterman Steve Hale’s boat where they learned the skills and secrets of trapping the tasty crustaceans.
Speaking of lobster, ACL’s traditional Lobster Bake Lunch is a popular complimentary event staged during each of its stopovers in Rockland. Nearly everyone turned out for the feast, held beneath a huge tent on the waterfront grounds of the Sail, Power & Steam Museum, and featuring lobster, mussels and corn – all freshly boiled/baked in seaweed – plus a variety of side dishes. There was no scrimping either – the food just kept coming!
Optional tours of two premier Rockland museums – Farnsworth Art Museum & Wyeth Center and Owl’s Head Transportation Museum – rounded out our Maine cruise’s offerings of the day. Both drew high praise, particularly from those of us visiting the Farnsworth, the only U.S. museum dedicated solely to the contribution of Maine artists, including the likes of Winslow Homer, Fitz Hugh Lane and Edward Hopper – along with the treasured works of N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. The Wyeth family has summered in Rockland through the years.
Boothbay Harbor – Boats and Blossoms
Boothbay Harbor, “Boating Capital of New England,” bustles with fishing vessels and pleasure craft alike and is a good stop on Maine cruises But it also is home to New England’s finest botanical garden. We visited Coastal Maine Botanical Garden on an optional tour with no idea what to expect.
Given its short growing season, Maine is usually not viewed as a horticultural haven. But these masterfully designed, riotously colorful gardens were an unanticipated treat – truly extraordinary while still in their relative infancy. Founded by local conservationists on 125 acres of shorefront woodland (now expanded to 300 acres), CMBG opened in 2007, but its array of pocket theme gardens and brilliantly landscaped network of walking paths appear so mature that they seem much older,
A brand new tour attracted more than 40 enthusiastic participants during this, our final day onboard Independence. Cap’n Fish’s Puffin Cruise proved an exciting afternoon treasure hunt – in search of colorful pint-sized puffins – as well as a variety of other birds and sea creatures.
The puffin safari focused on Eastern Egg Rock, scene of a National Audubon Society project initiated in the 1970s to reestablish an Atlantic puffin colony decimated due to declining fish stocks. Members spotted a number of puffins as well as eider ducks, cormorants, black guillemots, seals, dolphins and a giant ocean sunfish.
Also offered on the last day of our Maine cruise was an optional guided tour of the Maine Maritime Museum in nearby Bath, a nationally acclaimed museum featuring an extensive array of exhibits pertaining to Maine’s rich nautical heritage.
If you go on ACL’s Maine Cruise:
American Cruise Lines offers what it calls an “All-American Experience,” with American-built, flagged and crewed ships. The Connecticut-based company currently operates six vessels carrying 50 to 150 passengers – the industry’s largest fleet of small cruise ships.
In spite of its diminutive stature, Independence comes with many big-ship features. All staterooms are outside and measure more than 200 sq. ft. Most (40 of 51) have private balconies. An elevator serves all four decks.
The Grand Dining Room is of sufficient size for single seating service, plus there are four roomy lounges and a sundeck up top featuring a well-equipped exercise area and putting green.
Evening cocktails and wine and beer with lunch and dinner are complimentary – and there’s nightly entertainment in the main lounge, typically performed by local musicians.
The ship’s crew of 34 was unfailingly friendly and efficient, a hallmark of the line’s highly personalized service. Food was uniformly tasty, plentiful and varied and included many local seafood choices.
Independence sails weekly out of Portland from May through September and 2020 rates for the 8-day Maine Coast & Harbors cruise range from $4,270 to $4,810 per-person, plus $250 per-person port charges.
American Cruise Lines
Tel: (800) 460-4518